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Rep. Dave Olin of Thief River Falls, left, and Dean Urdahl of Grove City opted to watch different televisions Monday as a House committee watches a video about food inspections. Staff photo by Scott Wente

Inspectors look for peanut butter products

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Inspectors look for peanut butter products
Cottage Grove Minnesota 7584 80th Street South 55016

ST. PAUL - Food inspectors are fanning out across Minnesota this week to make sure potentially tainted peanut butter products no longer are for sale.

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The list of products that could be infected with possibly deadly salmonella bacteria tops 800, leading to what some say is the biggest recall in the country's history.

"They are looking for any of those 800 products ... making sure all of those identified products are removed from sale," Ben Miller of the Minnesota Agriculture Department said Monday about the inspectors.

They will visit places such as grocery and convenience stores.

The peanut butter problem did not begin in Minnesota, but three of the country's eight deaths believed related to the contaminated Georgia-produced peanut butter were in Minnesota. Thirty-six Minnesotans were reportedly sickened in the outbreak, among the most in the country.

At a Minnesota House agriculture committee hearing Monday, state agriculture and health department officials passed around the remainder of a five-pound tub of peanut butter - sealed in plastic - that allowed them to solve the nationwide outbreak.

The tub came from a Brainerd nursing home, where a Perham woman's death is blamed on salmonella in the peanut butter. Relatives of Shirley Mae Almer sued the peanut butter maker over her death.

"That is, in fact, the smoking tub," Leeann Johnson of the Agriculture Department told lawmakers.

Minnesota health and agriculture department employees put together the pieces of the salmonella puzzle that allowed national health officials to slow the outbreak.

"The more we looked at it, the more the peanut butter began to stand out," Miller said.

"Once we had identified peanut butter as probably the suspect vehicle, we began to look back," Miller added.

That is when it was discovered the Georgia-made King Nut peanut butter was distributed by Sysco of Fargo, N.D., to institutions such as schools, nursing homes and hospitals in northwestern Minnesota.

National health officials say brand-name peanut butter on store shelves is safe, but products ranging from crackers to ice cream that contain peanut butter should be avoided.

Dr. Kirk Smith of the Health Department said his agency is receiving more calls than normal from people with diarrhea, a salmonella poisoning symptom. Most are not connected to the peanut butter problem, he said.

The outbreak began in October and peaked in December.

Nationwide, more than 500 people in 43 states have been affected, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. Minnesota's 36 illnesses and three deaths centered on the northern part of the state.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, wanted to know what was being done to prevent Minnesota-made products from problems like the Georgia peanut butter. Miller said the state's most senior inspectors check food-manufacturing plants.

However, Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Mora, complained that the state does not require samples of each batch of a food product to be preserved for later testing if needed. Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Wabasha, added that very few problems have been reported with Minnesota food products.

Still, Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said that anything government can do to increase consumer confidence would be food for agriculture.

While legislators heard about Minnesota's part in solving the mystery, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar was praising Minnesotans' work.

The Minnesota Democrat did that in a letter she sent to President Barack Obama, who on Monday called for an investigation into the Food and Drug Administration's handling of the outbreak.

"I think that the FDA has not been able to catch some of these things as quickly as I expect them to," Obama told NBC News.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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